.Honor Them With More Than a Parade

‘Our Veterans’ digs deep into vets’ challenges

Friday, Nov. 11 is Veterans Day this year. There will be parades. Politicians will make speeches “honoring the sacrifices” of the men and women who serve or have served in the armed forces, and families with a relative with a military background will spend time thinking about that person.

But as Suzanne Gordon, Steve Early and Jasper Craven make clear in their new book, Our Veterans: Winners, Losers, Friends and Enemies on the New Terrain of Veterans Affairs, thinking about veterans as a monolithic group with the same experiences, same outlook and same needs is wrong. The extensively researched and sourced Our Veterans sets out to explain why.

In a telephone interview, Richmond-based Gordon and Early noted that ever since 1973, when the military draft was replaced with all-volunteer forces, major generational changes have challenged the myth of veteran solidarity. And even before that time, the way in which vets returning from Vietnam were treated—including their struggle to force the government to acknowledge the effects of Agent Orange—began to create rifts. 

Once conscription ended, recruiters’ pitch to patriotism wasn’t enough, said Gordon, co-founder of and senior policy analyst for the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute. “It became about upward mobility, home loans, education, health benefits,” she said. “They don’t tell [recruits] that the career success you can achieve as an officer is very different from what you can achieve as enlisted personnel.” 

And most young people, including members of Gen Z, now being enticed with ads that resemble video games, don’t know how relatively easily the military can renege on promised benefits through the process of “bad papering,” or receiving a less-than-honorable discharge. 

Our Veterans reports “about 575,000 former service members have been discharged under conditions ‘other than honorable,’” including many Black Vietnam-era soldiers who participated in anti-war protests. Post-9/11 vets with PTSD or traumatic brain injuries can be discharged for behavior that is the direct result of their military service. “Receiving a ‘general discharge’ can result in loss of education benefits,” said Gordon.

Bay Area-based nonprofit Swords to Plowshares has been fighting “bad papering” for years, said Gordon, by arguing that the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act was only intended to exclude those with dishonorable discharges. 

Rifts have also arisen, the book documents, between vets who support causes such as Black Lives Matter, and those who don’t, including ones indoctrinated into far-right causes. As traditional veterans’ organizations, such as the American Legion, decline in membership and clout, others, such as Koch Brothers-funded Concerned Veterans for America have emerged, espousing rightwing candidates and causes. 

One of these causes was the controversial “Choice Act,” promoted by its Republican sponsors as a way to expand veterans’ medical options beyond the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). Although endorsed by vets such as John McCain, its effects have been destructive. Our Veterans quotes vet and Montana Sen. John Tester as saying, “The Choice program has been a wreck. Every veteran up here will tell you that.”

Not surprisingly, given Gordon’s background, much of Our Veterans deals with the struggles—and successes—of the VA/VHA. “The VA,” the authors write, “[serves] 9 million predominantly poor and working-class patients, many of whom are people of color.” They quote one vet explaining why vets of all generations need to come together “to protect the VA because the VA saves lives every day. It saved my life.”

The VHA employs 100,000 vets, said Gordon, providing peer support to those suffering from a range of conditions caused by their military service, including mental health issues. Between 2006 and 2015, the book states, the number of vets requiring VA-provided mental health care rose from 900,000 annually to 1.6 million.

VHA research successes include the development of the shingles vaccine, the nicotine patch and the first implantable cardiac pacemaker. The COVID pandemic, Early, Gordon and Craven write, “provided a timely reminder of the VHA’s little-known fourth mission—acting as a backup system during a national public health crisis.”

Yet despite this, political forces linked to the for-profit health industry continue to push for increased privatization of the VHA. Already one-third of the agency’s budget goes to pay “outsourcing” bills, as allowed by the Choice Act, “which has led to over-billing and fraud,” said Gordon. Early pointed to a link to ongoing efforts to privatize the U.S. Postal Service, which employs thousands of vets. The VHA as a successful model of “socialized” medicine is worth saving, he urged.

Another issue discussed in the book is the “vet-to-cop” pipeline. “Policing is the third most common occupation for men and women who have served in the military,” the authors write, and they now represent 19% of all law enforcement personnel. 

Although many police chiefs laud these recruits for their discipline and work ethic,  the downside, as studies document, can be a tendency to “blur the lines” between combat and civilian crime situations. Said Early, “There is too great a tendency for police officers to [have an] ‘occupying army’ mindset.”

“Vets are two-to-three times more likely to use their firearms,” said Gordon. “Military indoctrination doesn’t teach you to think in shades of gray.” Instead, she said, the range of options for post-service offered and promoted should be expanded.

What should Americans concerned about the many issues facing veterans do to truly support them, other than waving a flag on Veterans Day? 

If you make a charitable donation, make it to an organization that is genuinely fighting for veterans’ best interests, “like Swords to Plowshares,” suggested Gordon. Find the nonprofit at www.swords-to-plowshares.org. 

“Join with labor unions and others to help them defend good public sector jobs,” said Early.

Perhaps most important of all, Our Veterans advocates, fight to put an end to the cycle of “forever wars.”

‘Our Veterans: Winners, Losers, Friends and Enemies on the New Terrain of Veterans Affairs.’ Suzanne Gordon, Steve Early and Jasper Craven, authors. Duke University Press, 2022. 

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